My heart does a little leap whenever I spot a long-legged kolea somewhere - at Kalama Park, in front of Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center, at the University of Hawaii Maui College parking lot, or poised on the lawn of the Maui Beach Hotel.
I'm happy for their courage and for their annual visit, and these days I pray for their safe return to Alaska, which happens to be right about now. On April 24-26 to be exact, or, depending on whom you talk to, April 23-25.
Yes, experts here pinpoint to the day when these doughty creatures begin their long migration back to the Arctic tundra from whence they came in August, the fledglings a month later, their feathers mottled and tattered from the 72 hours of steady flying across the Pacific.
On these evenings this week the Pacific golden plovers who have lived solitary existences all winter here will gather at dusk in flocks of 150-200 at staging areas which only they know.
Then, as night falls, when the wind is down, they will wheel up into the sky, turn to get their bearings, and then fly off at two wing-beats per second, or 62 miles per hour, 2,700 miles across the dark ocean to their mating grounds.
Now begins their amazing odyssey across the unforgiving ocean. Since they head into winds and spring storms, this flight is the most difficult, according to Marion Coste's "Kolea: The Story of the Pacific Golden Plover."
"The kolea fly across the ocean hour after hour. They continue through sunset and moonrise, wings beating without letup. Kolea cannot glide on the wind or rest on the water. If they stop moving their wings they plunge into the churning sea. The stars appear and fade into the dawn. Still the birds fly on. No chance to rest or eat or drink. The sun rises, moves across the sky, and sets again. For one more night and day the kolea keep up their constant flight. At last clouds on the horizon promise land below."
Pluvialis fulva is a black-eyed shorebird with long, thin grey-black legs and a sharp bill. It is 8 inches long, stands just under 12 inches tall, has a wingspan of almost 15 inches. It can seem like two separate birds. Kolea wear brown and gold plumage here during the winter that blends into the grasses.
Now they are clad in summer mating tuxedos that help protect them from predators. The male is mostly black, with a bright-white band that runs over his forehead and down both sides of his neck to his chest. The female has much the same markings, but the line around her face is yellowish and her black feathers are mottled with lighter feathers. In the Arctic, the dark body feathers make them look like flat shadows on the ground.
Once back at ANWAR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (dear God, keep the pipeline out), the male kolea returns to the same nesting area year after year. There he builds his nest, weaving in as many as 250 different pieces of moss or lichen, sometimes even flowers, making it blend in with the ground.
He finds a mate and in early June, the female kolea lays an egg every other day until she has four. They look like pebbles, gray-white, the color of lichens, darkly blotched like dirt. The chicks hatch in early July and begin to fly when they are 3 weeks old.
The family separates after that, each bird going its own way. One cold foggy morning in late July or August, a few adults circle upward. It is time to seek refuge in Hawaii.
The fledglings follow a month later, perhaps using the magnetic forces of the Earth, or steering by the sun or employing an innate star map. Many don't make it. Those that do will stake out their own territory - in a park, a school, a private home - and the cycle will begin all over again, as it has for 120,000 years.
Bird lover Sonny Gamponia saw a flock of 200-300 kolea arrive one year on Oct. 22 at Kealia National Wildlife Refuge toward Sugar Beach, a sight he will never forget. "That happens once in a lifetime."
The sky looks dark when plovers migrate, reported sailors en route to Samoa who watched them for three days. "It's not hundreds, it's thousands."
Every year Gamponia goes to a large local park at dusk hoping to see a flock leave. I'll join him tonight as we both wish for a glimpse of that miraculous moment when the kolea climb out of Hawaiian skies on their way home.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.